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Follow Finland: Equity More Important than Excellence in School Reform

My bedtime reading last night was Anu Partanen's article on "the stunning success of the West's reigning education superpower, Finland." Partanen's assessment, relying heavily on Finnish education official and author Pasi Sahlberg, points out that almost everything the Finns have done recently to reform their education system is the opposite of what Governor Dennis Daugaard and other "reformers" in South Dakota and the U.S. propose. Consider:

  1. There are no private schools in Finland, not even private universities. All those smart kids and Ph.D.'s in Finland graduated from public schools.
  2. Finland has no standardized tests. Teachers design their own tests, and report cards reflect local, individualized grading.
  3. Teacher education programs are highly selective.
  4. Teachers must have a master's degree.
  5. There are no complicated accountability programs; teachers and administrators are given prestige, pay, and high responsibility. They pretty much police their own profession.

Partanen's overall thesis will make Rand-y Republicans writhe: Finland excels in education because it focuses on equity, not excellence:

...while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Puronen: "Real winners do not compete." It's hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland's success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation [Anu Partanen, "What Americans Keep Ignoring about Finland's School Success," The Atlantic, 2011.12.29].

Thank you, ma'am, may I please have another?

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn't a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland's students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland -- unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway -- was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity [Partanen, 2011.12.29].

To fix South Dakota's schools, Governor Dennis Daugaard wants to impose more standardized tests to measure student progress. Finland says Governor Daugaard is wrong.

Governor Daugaard wants to drill administrators on a centralized evaluation measure for all teachers. Finland says he's wrong.

Governor Daugaard wants to hand out bonuses to only a few of the best teachers and foster competition among teachers. Finland says he's wrong.

Governor Daugaard wants to eliminate tenure, one of the few meager acknowledgments of professional status of teachers. Finland says he's wrong.

Governor Daugaard is not proposing any policy to make teacher certification more rigorous, to grant teachers and administrators more autonomy, to makes schools healthier or safer, or to provide more equity for students and teachers across South Dakota. Finland says that without those policies, Governor Daugaard's efforts to improve our schools will fail.


  1. Owen Reitzel 2012.01.17

    Very good Corey. As far as tenure goes there really is no tenure. Thats from my wife, who is a teacher, who said and I've seen as well, teachers get fired when they had tenure.
    Really teachers have no protection. SDEA is the only protection they have. Even teachers who don't belong to SDEA get protection.

  2. David Newquist 2012.01.17

    Diane Ravitch has also written about Finland's educational accomplishments, with a caution to note that the comparative reputation comes from that one score from the PISA exams that students take at the age of 15. Nevertheless, those scores pose a challenge to the assumptions that are operative in the American measures to assess and improve education. (

    Partanen makes the point that Finland 's approach to education contrasts markedly with the American, but that statement is based upon current American trends, not what America represented in the past. During World War II, America depended upon a highly professionalized and autonomous corps of teachers to deliver education. Their efforts were bolstered with the G.I. Bill. The American model of education became the most widely copied in the world, and was particularly examined by the Scandinavian countries as they revamped their systems after the Nazi occupations. The model that Finland is following now is very much that post-World War II model that the U.S. demonstrated.

    Currently, U.S. education struggles under policies and practices advanced by that absurd dictum that education should be run like a business. Politicians cling to this notion, despite the fact that most businesses are badly run and fail even at being good businesses. The current recession that has us struggling with inequality and poverty is the legacy that our business community, not our schools, has inflicted on us.

    In the early 1990s, in South Dakota we professors at NSU, which was still the leader in teacher education, noticed a decline in the quality of students entering teacher education. Around that time, I remember noting that most of the job recommendations I was writing for our best graduates were for out-of-state systems: California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota. In order to meet the in-state demand for teachers, there was a relaxation of admissions standards to teacher education. This was done by eliminating the content-area departments from a role in the selection process. At a division meeting, I recall a professor suggesting that the graduation ceremony needed to borrow from the marriage ceremony time when the president called for any reasons why a candidate should not be admitted into teaching. The professor said he would be on his feet constantly in objection. An exaggeration, yes, but it was made to point out what inadequate pay and the deprofessionalizing of teaching was doing to education.

    The recommendations to improve education, including those from the Obama administration, are obsessed with identifying and purging bad teachers from the system, which in the case of the Daugaard proposals seems to be 80 percent of the corps.

    The business model can and is doing for education just what it did for the economy.

  3. larry kurtz 2012.01.17

    Finland integrates school diets as an opportunity to serve local foods high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids: a stark contrast to how most US schools have to rely on meager budgets to serve meals high in starch and fat.

  4. Michael Black 2012.01.18

    I was in line at the DSU Bookstore visiting with current students yesterday. My son Dacey is a HS junior taking a college literature course. The cost of his ONE online class is more than 5 times greater than the cost of my first semester of school: tuition, fees and books. Average starting teacher salaries have increased about 25% in the same time frame.

    Again - 500% greater cost for a 25% greater reward.

    It would be pretty easy to borrow $10k a year to become a teacher. That means $400 a month student loan payments over 10 years or maybe a quarter of a teacher's monthly take home salary.

    The last year my wife taught, she put in 80 hours a week as a long term sub. First year teachers can expect the same schedule setting up curriculum and grading papers.

    This is SD and not Finland.

  5. troy jones 2012.01.18

    Micheal, this is true for everyone who is graduating from college. Oh yeah, teachers are special and should be exempt from reality. Sorry. I forgot.

  6. LK 2012.01.18


    Thanks for the cheap shot. Last I heard, reality should be backed by data. I've made my arguments about merit pay based on studies that say it won't work.

  7. Michael Black 2012.01.18

    Troy, teachers are not special, but their salaries seem to be depressed compared to the growth in other fields not requiring a 4 yr degree.

  8. Michael Black 2012.01.18

    I spent a few minutes this morning asking questions of our local superintendent. He was quite frank about the challenges teachers and districts face. The issues are not black and white. We can either listen to what the other guy has to say or clamp our hands over our ears and close our eyes.

  9. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.19

    David, thank you for pointing out the history that has gotten us where we are. We can go back to giving our teachers and schools the autonomy they need and which apparently works quite well in Finland.

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